.Marissa woke as intended to the sound of the unearthly chant: qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis. She sat up on her prayer mat, hands folded across her heart, breathing as she had been taught, sharp intakes of air through the nostrils, pulled down to the bottom of her belly, then harshly expelled. The rushing sound of her breath flowed in and out between the long sustains of the singing. Ten breaths brought her alert. What had been the dream she was just dreaming? — but she was not meant go toward it now.
Quoniam tu solus sanctus. Tu solus Dominus.
Now breathing normally, forgetting even that she breathed, she lowered her hands from her heart and let them lie palms open on her inner thighs, in the cross of her legs on the prayer mat. Her palms were full of heart warmth, as if they cupped warm fluid in the dark. The darkness was not total, though. A weak light flickered in a high corner, casting a horned shadow across the floor and the far wall where it broke on the black felt that sealed the window. She brought her memory to bear on the First Sin, which was that of the Angels—wanting to recall and understand all this in order to make me more ashamed and confound me more, bringing into comparison with the one sin of the Angels my so many sins, and reflecting, while they for one sin were cast into Hell, how often I have deserved it for so many…. In doing so she also concentrated on a point of warmth halfway between her navel and her vulva, as though blowing softly on a coal—this practice belonged to a different discipline yet she believed it might aid this one.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis the sin of the Angels, how they, being created in grace, not wanting to help themselves with their liberty to reverence and obey their Creator and Lord, were changed from grace to malice, and hurled from Heaven to Hell; and so then qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostrum but here Marissa’s mind hung up on the word hurled which somehow attached itself to a weakness in her meditation, whispering itself into meaninglessness, tawdry as the hidden disc on which she’d looped a Gregorian Qui Sedes, setting the player with a timer to rouse her from her idle dreams at midnight, false as the yellow Christmas bulb tucked on top of her tall corner cupboard which hurled the shape of its fineals across the room like horns. Mocked by her own monkey mind she trembled in frustration, hurled back and repulsed from the meditation even as she continued hopelessly to struggle, to move the feelings more with the will.
The music stopped, but she didn’t notice, and the light was gone too, something had changed, monkey mind was fussing over these changes but quickly completely she managed to smother it, turning her being into the new thing, whatever it was, or rather being snatched into it by three points, the one below her navel and the two aching points of her breasts. Across total darkness curved a sliver of light like a shooting star, going down and down, hurled down. 0, 0, 0, she thought, with unutterable sorrow, she is lost. Away in her room, which somehow her being had after all departed, her hands were fluttering in her lap. Far away in the other realm, among its splintering materials. Lost to me. To herself. Not to herself.
The spark went down a long way into darkness, but it did not go out.
“The eye of our intention,” Claude was saying, with the rasp and flare of a match as he scraped it on the striker. He leaned forward across his folded knees to light the candle between them on the wooden floor. Marissa looked down on the top of his bony, close-cropped head, sprouting a silvery down like dandelion seed. He wore his favorite sweater, a black crewneck riddled with tiny moth holes. The sight of it gave Marissa a peculiar watery feeling, like looking at a puppy before its eyes had opened.
She too was kneeling, sitting on her heels. It was a remarkably painful position if held for long. Claude had inured himself to it during a sojourn in Tibet. He tilted his baldish skull, whose shadow shifted on the wall behind him. In the dim his eyes seemed to acquire an ascetic slant.
“…makes the difference.” He breathed slowly. “Between an Exercise and ordinary trance.”
The eye of our intention. Claude had told her not to think of him as pastor or confessor, nor to call him Father, although he was a priest. He was her guide, through the Exercises. Like––
But he did have an intuition for her intention if it faltered. For her confusion, when she was confused. He looked at her now across the flickering candle flame, as if withholding a hint of a smile. As if somehow he knew the odd interruption of her Exercise two nights before: the image of a meteor hurtling down into the dark. The eye of her intention had wandered then—Marissa knew it, would not willingly admit it.
“Set and setting,” Claude announced.
Marissa rolled a little on her already-aching knees. “What are you talking about?”
His smile became visible now. “You know, we used to cooperate with other religions sometimes.” By we he meant the Jesuits. “Not here so much, but sometimes in the East. Considerably. Maybe too much. As if whatever religious practices were really all about the same thing—the Divine but in a different aspect.”
“And so?” She returned his smile with her mouth, eliciting, her eyes turned down.
“Set and setting is a phrase from the LSD culture,” Claude explained. “There’re a hundred ways to enter a trance. What happens inside it depends on your expectations and your guidance. The cultural surroundings, so to speak.”
Marissa raised her eyes from the candle to his face. “But you still believe,” she asked him.
“Lord, I believe!” Claude said, raising his open hands. “Help thou mine unbelief!”
They laughed. The room, which was drafty, grew a little warmer.
Claude said, “Shall we begin?”
The candle was a fat white cube, unscented, its four walls faced with thin slices of agate. The reddish-brown whorls of the cross-cut stone warmed with the interior light. Shadows of their two kneeling figures loomed in the corners of the ceiling. A voice resonated, Claude’s, not-Claude’s. … to bring to memory all the sins of life, looking from year to year, or from period to period. She was careful not to look at him first, to look at the place and the house where I have lived; second, the relations I have had with others; third, the occupation in which I have lived.
It was equally possible that Claude sat simply mute with his lidded eyes and his lips slightly parted and the voice she heard was an inner one, a fusion of her study and her familiarity with his tone.
Fourth, to see all my bodily corruption and foulness;
Fifth, to look at myself as a sore and ulcer, from which have sprung so many sins and so many iniquities and so very vile poison.
She heard these phrases, as her eyes turned backwards in her head, and yet she was having trouble with the composition, which in this as in the previous Exercise seemed difficult because abstract.
to see with the sight of the imagination and consider that my soul is imprisoned in this corruptible body, and all the compound in this valley, as exiled among brute beasts:
Her eyes, turned backward in her head, saw no such thing. Nevertheless she was somehow aware how the candle was a barrier between them like a trench full of burning brimstone—why must it be so? The spark she saw tumbling into darkness now had a shape, a bright rectangle like the form of a small mirror, flickering and turning as it fell. The mirror image was a face, a long Modigliani oval, with something streaming away from its edges like hair or snakes or blood. Animal persons rushed at her from the walls of the cave: bison, bear, a mastodon.
an exclamation of wonder with deep feeling,
going through all creatures, how they have left me in life and preserved me in it; the Angels, how, though they are the sword of the Divine Justice, they have endured me, and guarded me, and prayed for me; the Saints, how they have been engaged in interceding and praying for me; and the heavens, sun, moon, stars, and elements, fruits, birds, fishes and animals–and the earth, how it has not opened to swallow me up, creating new Hells for me to suffer in them forever!
Now she struggled up through syrupy layers of this dark somnolence; her eyes burst open as she broke the surface. She hoped she had not groaned or cried aloud. The candle flame was ordinary, small. Across it, Claude seemed to look at her quizzically. She knew that much more time must have passed in this room than in the cavernous space where she had been.
Blood rushed painfully through her cramped legs as she cautiously unfolded her knees. An aurora of gold speckles swirled across her vision for a few seconds before it cleared. Claude’s regard was knowing now; he knew she had seen something unusual with her inward eye, while she knew that she could recover and understand it when she would, and that she would not tell him now.
Claude came up from the floor like a carpenter’s rule extending, long arms, lean legs in his black jeans.
“All right?” he said.
“Yes.” Marissa’s smile felt warped on her face. “All right.”
Claude looked as if he would offer a hand to help her rise, but didn’t. She got her feet under her and rose on her own. It was difficult to understand the awkwardness of their leave-takings, which were frequent after all. She had seen Claude spontaneously embrace fat foulmouthed drunken women from the rez. The space between their bodies seemed a chasm now. He reached across it, briefly clasped her hand, then let it go.
From the next night she could recall no dream but on the third morning she woke with a comprehension of what she had seen in the dark furrow where her Exercise had strayed. “But you know,” Claude seemed to be saying to her in the space of her mind, and she did know now, exactly. It hurt but she was more glad of the pain than not. She was proud to have figured it out on her own. She had something to bring to him now, like a treasure, her confession.
Early, but Claude was an early riser, and Marissa saw no reason to wait. Though they had not planned any meeting this morning, she might if she went quickly catch him for a bit before either of their workdays were due to begin. She dressed quickly, dragged a brush through her dark hair. No make-up, she decided with a tick of hesitation, for she didn’t normally wear it to work.
Her ancient little Toyota pickup rolled over the side streets of Kadoka till its windshield framed the church. Over the white lintel was affixed an electrified image of the Sacred Heart, exploding the burning cross from its upper ventricles, its Valentine contour wrapped in yellow-glowing thorns and weeping a tear of marquee-light blood. Marissa loathed this artifact and wished that Claude would have it removed. His predecessor as parish priest had raised the funds to install it.
Adjacent and connected to the church by a passage of coal-blackened brick, the small seminary where Claude resided was three-quarters empty, most of its windows dirty and dark. Vocations had dwindled on the rez, where a few handfuls of young men once had seen the Church as a portal to a better life. Of course, especially since the scandals, vocations were a problem nationwide…. An ambulance was parked alongside the seminary, its back doors open, siren quiet, red lights revolving slowly. On the far side of the white marble steps Sister Anne-Marie Feeney stood solid as a fireplug, her orthopedic shoes set apart on the pavement, cool wind twitching the black cloth of her habit.
Marissa’s mind could not yet construct the thing she wished to be other than it was, but as she got out of the truck she was already thinking, if I got up on the other side of the bed, put my right shoe on before my left, if a butterfly flapped its wings in China, if then if— A pair of shoulders hunched in a white scrub top appeared in the doorway, backing awkwardly toward the first step, while leaning forward into a load.
Sister Anne-Marie registered her presence and waved her imperiously back with her brick-red calloused hand. Marissa continued to advance; the nun pointed more insistently at something behind her. Her lips moved but Marissa heard nothing. She looked over her shoulder and saw that she had left her driver’s door hanging open across the bike lane which the town had recently established by dint of drizzling a line of white paint across the pot-holed pavement. Sister Anne Marie, who transported herself on a rust-red Schwinn three-speed, was militant on the subject of the bike lane.
Marissa turned back and slapped her door shut –irritably, though knowing herself in the wrong. She advanced again toward the seminary door, where the two paramedics had now emerged with their stretcher and the long figure laid out motionless upon it, covered from head to toe with a white sheet. With no particular urgency they rolled the stretcher in. No eye contact with Marissa or the nun. Sister Anne-Marie had caught Marissa’s elbow in her blunt grip—had she looked like she would throw herself onto the, onto the—? But now the attendants had closed both doors and were climbing into the front of their vehicle.
She dipped into her front pants pocket and touched the rosary he had given her. This other sequence of events was so clearly present to her still; she arrived to find Claude sweeping the seminary steps, one of many banal tasks he claimed for himself around the grounds of the church. He looked up, mildly surprised, but already more pleased to see her than not, his smile still not quite perceptible as Marissa glanced at her watch and stopped herself from quickening her step. She did not have to be at work for forty minutes so there was time to go around the corner and have a cup of dishwater coffee at the donut shop there—time and so much to tell, and finally someone she could safely tell it to.
The sun broke over the peaked roof line of the church and flooded the sidewalk where they stood with light.
She had apparently missed a few things Sister Anne-Marie had been saying, “… a mickey valve, a mighty valve—oh I can’t remember exactly what but Father said it wasn’t serious, the doctors were watching it, supposed to be.”
She looked at the ugly electric sign. Claude’s heart had a hole in it then, if it had not blown up. Marissa brought her eyes down to the nun’s face, which was the same color and texture of the abrasive blood-red brick of which the older parts of the town were constructed. Take away the wimple and she might have been looking at the face of a career alcoholic, one of the sterno-strainers. Oh, it was only high blood pressure in Sister Anne-Marie’s case, she knew.
“I didn’t know,” she heard herself say.
“Father didn’t tell many people.”
And now Marissa searched the nun’s face for something along the lines of suspicious knowledge (an insight she had carefully denied herself)—an unspoken What makes you think you had a right to know, you little minx? Instead she found only a gentleness she could not bear.
“Child,” said Sister Anne Marie. Marissa broke away from her and walked stiff-legged to her truck.
Early to work, she leafed through her dossiers, barely seeing them with her parched eyes. It was supposed to be a paperwork morning; she had no appointments till late afternoon. Just Jimmy Scales, and he was not likely to show. Marissa knew he had skipped his court-ordered pee test and that she would most likely be spending a piece of her afternoon writing him up for it. The molded plastic chair across from her desk, where Scales sat sullen and uncommunicative for forty-five minutes every two weeks. It would be a paperwork day, then, not just a paperwork morning—well, she could catch up on some of those files. A break midmorning, telling her beads in her pocket while she watched Peggy smoke her weak, toxic cigarettes. Yoghurt or a stale packaged salad for lunch. She could populate her whole future with such banalities, as if instead of being doled out one at a time the events had all fallen out of their box.
She yanked the sheet with Scales’s basic stats on it out of the grubby folder and dropped the rest of the folders back in the metal file drawer. Peggy ran into her in the entryway, coming in as Marissa went out.
“Where you off to?” Peggy said.
“After Jimmy Scales,” Marissa told her.
“What? Would that be a rational act? He didn’t even miss his appointment yet.”
“No,” Marissa said. “But don’t I know he’s going to—am I Nostradamus or what?”
“Girl, you look you seen a ghost.” Peggy was wagging her head slowly. “No, you look you are a freaking ghost.”
At a gas station on the north bank of White River she stopped and bought a pack of Marlboro Reds and tossed it on the dashboard. She’d done that before when she quit smoking—once for a whole sixteen months. An unopened pack on the corner of her desk proved she was stronger than her addiction and that her clients might even be stronger than theirs. A parable in pantomime. Sometimes she had given the pack to a client, in the end.
At the border of the reservation she pulled over to enter Jimmy Scales’ reported address into the small GPS unit improvisationally mounted on the cracking dashboard of her truck. It came up somewhere west of Sharp’s Corner. Marissa wasn’t familiar with the area. She knew her way to the IHS hospital on East Highway 18, and to Oglala Lakota College, where she had briefly worked in the health center.
She missed the turn she should have taken at Scenic and drove blind across a narrow waist of Badlands National Park. On the far side she kept following 44 as it twisted south into the rez, and presently found herself passing through Wanblee. The wreckage of a couple of houses torn up by a tornado lay scattered over three acres of ground south of the roadway. A little further was a white frame church, with a quaint wooden belfry, photogenic. She pushed down the thought of Claude. There’d be a funeral. When would it be? Her future…. A handful of boys in droopy shorts and shirts were popping skateboards off the concrete stoop of the church. One of the more daring rode crouching down the welded pipe stair rail and survived the landing. Swooping in a wide turn over the asphalt parking lot, he glanced incuriously at her truck as it rattled by.
Her dry eyes burned. West of Potato Creek she began to overtake a pedestrian. Slender, with glossy black hair so long it swung around her hips. A half open backpack swung from her shoulder by one strap. She turned, lifting her chin, and signaled not by raising her thumb but pointing her hand peremptorily to the ground, as if to command the truck to stop.
Inez. Marissa’s heart lifted slightly. She leaned across to pop the passenger door. Inez slipped off the backpack as she climbed in, then shrugged out of the denim jacket she was wearing.
“Wow Miz Hardigan, whatcha doin’ all the way out here? Can you gimme a ride down to school?” Inez wore an orange tank top and the round of her belly pushed a gap between its hem and the waistband of her jeans. In her slightly distended navel glittered a small bright stud. She had not stopped talking: “I’d been late to comp class if you didn’t stop—“ she pointed at the corner of a rhetoric textbook sticking out of her backpack– ” I dunno it’s kinda boring anyway I thought I might switch to the nursing program anyway, Miz Hardigan you musta done nursing, right? Hey, can I take a cig? Hey, cool truck, I always liked ‘m, my uncle used to have one once back when they were sorta new.”
Marissa nodded at the pack on the dashboard. It was not like Inez to chatter this way. Marissa knew her as calm and slightly mysterious. She had already peeled the cellophane from her pack and lit a cigarette with a lighter she squeezed out of her jeans pocket, then let it burn down unnoticed between her fingers, as she picked obsessively at some invisible something between the hairs of her left forearm.
Oh Christ, Marissa thought. Do you know what that’s doing to your baby? Do you know what… she didn’t say anything. She couldn’t have, as there was no chink in Inez’ prattle for her to have slipped a word into before they reached the entrance of the college. Marissa dug in the pocket behind her seat and fished out a scare-you-off-meth brochure…. Unfolded, it displayed the stages of a twenty-year-old woman aging forty years in two. Inez shoved it into her backpack without really seeming to see it at all, but she gave Marissa a hurt look from her wiggly eyes as she hopped out of the truck and slammed the door.
In a devil’s elbow beyond the college, Marissa narrowly missed a collision with a horse-trailer, though the road was otherwise empty and their speeds were low. She pulled onto the shoulder and sat there, shaking with the fading tension, watching the trailer recede in her side-view mirror. A painted rodeo scene flaked from its back panel: cowboys and Indians, horses and bulls. Marissa saw that Inez had dropped a lighter on the passenger seat when she got out. The blue translucent plastic showed a quarter full of fluid. And the cigarette box lay on the dash, cracked open. Another few months into a meth habit and Inez would have automatically stolen it.
Marissa got out of the truck to smoke her first cigarette in over a week. The blast of unaccustomed nicotine dizzied her so much that she had to brace a palm on the warm ticking hood of her vehicle. In one corner of her mind was the thought that this was not really a pleasant or desirable sensation. In another: Now I am going to cry. But she didn’t cry.
Sharp’s Corner was no more remarkable than Wanblee had been. The GPS led her west onto a gravel road that soon degraded itself into a packed dirt track. Where the track petered out into blank open prairie, the GPS unit went dark. Marissa had a state map in her glove box, but on that the reservation proved to be a nearly blank white space, like the African interior on the maps of Victorian explorers. Her tires were worn and it would be idiotic to break down out here; if the GPS had failed her cell phone probably wouldn’t get a signal either.
Nevertheless she drove on. The prairie was neither as featureless nor flat as it first seemed. There were billows and hollows full of thorny scrub and small twisted trees. In one of these pockets appeared a tin roof streaked brown with rust. Marissa steered toward it, thinking that she might have blundered onto the Jimmy Scales’ domicile after all.
She set her parking brake and got out. The small house sat half in, half out of a thicket of evergreen brush, at the bottom of a dish in the prairie, scattered with sharp white stones. It did not exactly look abandoned, but the door hung open in a way that dismayed her. She started to call to the house but did not. To the left of it the rusted carcass of an old Mustang stood on blocks and beside it a washing machine so ancient it had a wringer bolted on top. A dented aluminum saucepan lay upside down among the stones.
The sky darkened abruptly, though it could scarcely have been noon. Marissa looked up to see a black squall line hurrying from the west, dense inky cloud that blotted out the sun. She could no longer remember why she had come here. Out of the thicket to the right of the house came an old man with long white hair, wearing a green quilted vest with the stuffing coming out from its parted seams. He shook a rattle at the end of one bony arm and made a thin keening sound with his voice. Although he did not seem to see her he was coming toward her certainly, as if everything in this day, in her whole life, existed to carry her to this moment and him to her. When he had reached her, his free hand took hers.
Marissa said, Why?
You have a hollow in your heart, the shaman said. Or maybe he said hunger. The rattle shook in his other hand. Hunger. Hollow. Now Marissa was weeping, with no sound or sobbing. She only knew because the water from her eyes ran into the neck of her shirt and pooled in the shell of her collar bone.
Go to it now, the shaman said. Don’t hesitate.
—Madison Smartt Bell
Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Waiting for the End of the World (1985), Straight Cut (1986), The Year of Silence (1987), Doctor Sleep (1991), Save Me, Joe Louis (1993), Ten Indians (1997) and Soldier’s Joy, which received the Lillian Smith Award in 1989. Bell has also published two collections of short stories: Zero db (1987) and Barking Man (1990). In 2002, the novel Doctor Sleep was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes, starring Goran Visnjic, Paddy Considine, and Shirley Henderson. Forty Words For Fear, an album of songs co-written by Bell and Wyn Cooper and inspired by the novel Anything Goes, was released by Gaff Music in 2003; other performers include Don Dixon, Jim Brock, Mitch Easter and Chris Frank.
Bell’s eighth novel, All Soul’s Rising, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. All Souls Rising, along with the second and third novels of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused, is available in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, appeared in 2007. Devil’s Dream, a novel based on the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, was published by Pantheon in 2009. His most recent novel is The Color of Night.
Born and raised in Tennessee, he has lived in New York and in London and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of Princeton University (A.B 1979) and Hollins College (M.A. 1981), he has taught in various creative writing programs, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Since 1984 he has taught at Goucher College, along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. He has been a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers since 2003. For more details, visit http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell